Interview: John Hodgman

The actor and writer charts his path from literary agent to Deranged Millionaire and ruminates on the coming apocalypse.

After achieving fame as a television personality, writer and actor John Hodgman reinvented himself as a deranged millionaire. He'll bring his message of doom to the Varsity tonight.

Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

After achieving fame as a television personality, writer and actor John Hodgman reinvented himself as a deranged millionaire. He’ll bring his message of doom to the Varsity tonight.

Tony

WHAT: That is All: An Evening with John Hodgman

WHERE: Varsity Theater, 1308 Fourth St. SE, Minneapolis

WHEN: 8 p.m., Thursday

COST: $25 in advance, $28 day of

John Hodgman is an expert on most subjects, especially ones he makes up. The Yale alumnus has made a living fabricating trivia and history that barely hides genuine thoughtfulness and heart behind straight-faced surrealism.

After writing his first book, “The Areas of My Expertise,” Hodgman rocketed to fame as a contributor on the Daily Show and the role of “PC” in Apple’s ubiquitous “Get a Mac” ad campaign. This lead to big parts on “Flight of the Conchords” and “Battlestar Galactica” as well as a supporting turn on HBO’s “Bored to Death.”

Now, Hodgman is touring around the country behind his latest book “That is All,” the final entry in his trilogy of “complete world knowledge.” He talked to A&E from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., about his transformation into a mustachioed doomsayer and, appropriately, the end of the world.

It’s difficult to picture now, but you started out working as a literary agent for many years. Did you always have ambitions to act on television and in movies?

No, not in the least. I mean, I’m someone who enjoys popular culture a lot — movies and television in particular — but by the time I was in college I also thought that I could plausibly become a writer. And it was that fate that I was trying to avoid by being a literary agent for a long time because at the time, I wanted to write very sincere and earnest short stories, and I knew there was really no market for such things. So I decided to avoid writing by becoming a professional in the publishing industry.

But by the time I was in my mid-30s, in the same way that I was realistic enough to appreciate that there was no market for weird, short, surrealistic fiction, I was also realistic enough to know that it was time to shut that fantasy [of being on TV] down. And I’m very glad to say that I was wrong in both cases. That, for some reason much beyond my own design, and certainly long after I had shut down all ambition in that area, I was able to find a market for weird, surreal short stories so long as they were in the form of humorous lists of fake trivia. And strangely enough, someone who was not young and not particularly beautiful in any conventional sense could be kidnapped by a visual medium and put on television not entirely but almost against his own will.

Now, of course, I’m very happy to be there, and like all people on television, I will do anything and compromise any principle — maybe even to the point of murder — to stay on television.

Yeah, now it seems that you’ve fully embraced your celebrity, by taking on this Deranged Millionaire persona.

I had created this character and myself as a deranged millionaire at a time when I would have been lucky to be a deranged thousandaire. But it was after the sort of large, disorienting, vertiginous feces storm of fame that hit me between 2006 and 2010 was just beginning to subside [when] I realized that I was in the place in life where I could grow a terrible mustache and walk around in bare feet and not have to worry too much about what other people think of me because I have resources.

It seems to be the perfect blend of the real and hyper-real worlds to embody a deranged millionaire detached from life, aimless and scared, obsessed with the end of his life and the end of the world.

Is that what you’ll be talking about in your show?

Yeah. I’ll talk to a degree about the pending end of the world, as predicted by the Mayans on Dec. 21, 2012. And to some degree about how humans will be able to survive after the collapse of civilization and year-long period of tribulation that I call Ragnarok. But I don’t want people to get depressed. I’ll also be talking about sports and magic tricks.

You have kind of a mixed relationship with post-apocalyptic literature. You seem to be quite taken with it, but I’ve also heard you call it “narcissistic.”

I feel that most post-apocalyptic literature falls into two camps: One is sort of a narcissistic. Doom, warnings of doom. Doom prophesying.

“If you don’t change your ways now, America will be taken over by Russians!”

That’s “Red Dawn,” which is an ancient text for you, but they’re going to remake it soon so you’ll be able to enjoy it.

And then there’s the other part of it, which is purely wish fulfillment. The zombie post-apocalypse is the one that I find to be so utterly dull, because all the zombie apocalypse is wish fulfillment of getting to have the license to shoot your neighbors in the head. Not just a body shot, a head shot! And that’s why it’s such a viscerally popular genre and why I’m not interested in dealing with it.

In “That is All” I said over the course of Ragnarok there will be no zombies. The only things that will come back to life are taxidermied animals. And they are not going to get very far because their paws are nailed down to wood.

We’ll have other stuff to worry about too, I gather. Like the blood wave and the omega pulse.

I think that the most terrifying thing about Ragnarok is the 700 ancient and unspeakable gods of which the blood wave and the omega pulse are the direct result. These are obviously homage to H.P. Lovecraft.

What Lovecraft [shows] is that there is an empty utterly uncaring cosmos around us that will destroy us without care and will not even hear us as we plead for mercy. And that can be described as the elder gods or the squid-faced behemoth called Cthulhu, [pause] or it can be described as time.